My Favorite Will Ferrell Movies: An Interview with Whit Stillman

The director of Damsels in Distress on his lost decade, the broad comedies he wants to make and the evolution of indie comedies.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


It’s been 13 years since we’ve seen a new Whit Stillman movie, but no one’s more upset about that than Stillman. He spent a decade developing movies in Europe that fell through. Only returning to his collaborators Liz Glotzer and Martin Shafer from Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco did Damsels in Distress get made. Violet (Greta Gerwig) leads a group of girls at Seven Oaks college running a suicide prevention hotline. They speak really proper and try to make people happy by dancing. We got some private time to talk to Stillman about his long-awaited return to film, and he shared some startling revelations about his personal taste.


CraveOnline: Where can I meet girls like this?

Whit Stillman: Ha ha. I don't know what to say. Girls like this, that’s such a good question.


These are certainly the types of women and liked to meet, and probably the opposite of the ones I’ve actually dated.

Boy, I think some of the women on this junket would be good to meet. They seem very pleasant and interesting.


The other journalists?

Yeah, yeah, every roundtable there’s someone I could fall for.


Is this your version of a college comedy like Animal House?

Yeah, yeah, it is. Someone said, I think it’s a funny remark, that this is Jane Austen meets Animal House. I think that sums it up.


Is that a genre you’d always liked and wanted to do your take?

I actually wanted to do Will Ferrell movies. I love Will Ferrell and would love to do a movie with him or with Bill Murray, Steve Martin. I like those comic actors. I think they’re really great. I never got offered the kind of script that I’d want to do with them. And so I think in this case I think I sort of wrote 1/3 a sort of young Will Ferrell comedy with these guys, so that was a happy experience. Since I didn’t get offered those kind of films, I could write one myself, or at least 1/3 of one.


Did you get anywhere talking with those comedians and developing projects with them?

Yeah, I’ve met Steve Martin and I’ve met Will Ferrell, had really, really nice meetings with them. I’ve never met Bill Murray. I really like those guys. I think actually Bill Murray’s the secret weapon of indie comedies because the great indie comedies he seems to be in.


I think people have caught onto that now.

It’s great. Wes Anderson’s been pretty clever about that but also Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch.


Were you up for any of the Will Ferrell movies that got made?

No, no. I haven’t been, no. The only film I was close to being attached to or actually was attached to is something called Addicted to Love that Meg Ryan made many years ago with Matthew Broderick.


How different would that movie have been under you?

Well, it would’ve been but actually I spoke to Griffin [Dunne] when he got the job and he had wonderful ideas for changing that project and I really admire him for having such good ideas. Then when I finally saw the film, they hadn’t allowed him to do any of those ideas. It was just exactly the same script I’d read. I was so impressed with the brilliant solutions and ideas he had.


I’m always fascinated by what other versions of movies could have been.

Yeah, me too. I find it fascinating.


Do you remember any of the interesting ideas from that?

No, I don’t. I just remember I was really impressed with his ideas.


Would fans of your work be surprised to know that you have such wacky sensibilities?

I don’t see why they would. I mean, Elf is a lovely film and Old School is a lot of fun. I don’t see why they’d be surprised about that. There’s a goofy innocence in a lot of Will Ferrell’s performances that is really attractive.


Even if the films themselves aren’t intellectual, intellectuals appreciate your films. So maybe they’d be surprised.

I’ve got really broad tastes. The things I like are either very small or very big.


So extremes, one way or the other.

People are shocked when they ask me my favorite TV shows because my tastes are very pop.


I’m trying to imagine why asking about your favorite TV shows would come up, but now I want to know.

Well, I work in TV and everyone sort of generates the same shows they admire. I don’t really know those shows. I haven’t seen them. I only see network shows that were shown in Europe or that are shown on airlines. A friend mocked me saying, “Oh, the only TV shows you know are those that they show on airlines.”


So what are your favorites?

I’m not sure what they are now but when I was being asked this question and answering, the ones I liked were “Desperate Housewives” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”


There’s some really great stuff in “Desperate Housewives.”

I think it’s fantastic and fascinating. It’s really so original and so revolutionary in the way it uses narrative and tone and the mixture of comedy, it’s really impressive.


Pretty scathing at times too.

I’ve kind of lost touch with it since I was in Europe, but it was just delightful watching it in France where people loved it and they showed three episodes together on a Friday night. So we’d have Friday night movies with “Desperate Housewives.” They would only have commercials between episodes, so the episodes were just exhilaratingly fast and funny because there were no commercial breaks until the end.


What was it like discovering this generation of actors?

I think the mode you’re in in certain phases of filmmaking is panic, because you write a script and you’re getting some backing, you can go ahead and make your film but you don’t know if you’re going to find all the actors for it. And then each actor you get who could do it, they don’t even have to be right for it particularly or what you imagine. Just if they can do it and be good. It’s like this is a person who’s funny and they can do your part and it’s not the movie you had in min but wow, something will be good. And then you keep on going, keep on going and then you find people who will not only be good and funny but are actually right for the role. It’s a scary thing but if you work it long enough and hard enough and it turns out well, in this case we had lots of casting director talent. We had two casting director groups and two co’s and they were really good. We looked at everyone, watched everyone’s auditions. It’s really gratifying too when you get the day players who are really good. We had the scene at the diner in this movie, it’s one of my favorite scenes because we have Carolyn Farina from Metropolitan plays a waitress in there. Two hideaway guys at the diner and another waitress, they’re all at the top of their game and Greta’s really terrific as Violet and it all kind of clicks. It’s very emotional. It’s funny and emotional at the same time, the scene.


Should people try to talk like these girls in real life?

Yeah, I think they should. They should avoid bad language and talk like this.


But even I stumble to formulate words in questions. How can I do it everyday without a script?

You’ll be fine.


Is there a quality that they see the best in everything, even people’s flaws?

Yeah, there’s certain fantasy elements in the film. I think one fantasy element is the Violet character who is always relishing being criticized. That almost never happens. People don’t like to be criticized.


The ‘90s were the height of indie dialogue movies. Has dialogue devolved so much now that everything’s abbreviated?

I don't think so. I think things are pretty good. There are good Woody Allen films, there are good Wes Anderson films.


In film, but in the way people really talk.

Oh, I don't know. I see my daughters and they’re pretty articulate and their friends are pretty articulate.


What has changed about making a film in the last 10+ years?

Well, it’s back to the ‘80s I think. People have to go way down budget the way they did when the indie scene was first starting in the ‘80s. There’s a bit of a bubble, a boom and a bubble and it burst. So things went way up and then went way down. Now I think we’re back to sort of gravity level where we have to keep everything close to the ground.


Were the 2000s the roughest time?

Yeah, they were for me. The lost decade.


Does that mean beware around 2030, things will get bad again?

Well, I like theories but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily going to hold water.


How has the film festival circuit change since the ‘90s?

That’s a little discouraging. Films have gotten even more depressing at film festivals. They’ve gotten hyper violent, hyper depressing. I was on a festival jury this fall and I don't think I’ll ever do that again. I don’t want to have my sensibility brutalized by those kind of films. I mean, something bad’s happening with film festivals. I think the Cannes festival has sort of set a bad example. They have too many things that are too bleak and too distressing.


Where do you think the happy uplifting movies are going to come from then?

Fortunately they’ve been putting in a couple happy uplifting movies every other year so we get The Artist and films like that.


And Damsels?

Damsels is Venice and I owe a big debt of gratitude to the people of Venice for putting us in a very good slot in Venice.


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